Friday, 31 March 2017

Productivity - A Cautionary Tale

An ordinary morning, on an ordinary working day. I am seated at my desk, waiting for that vital first cup of coffee to activate my brain enough that I will be able to get dressed and take my dog out. 

This is Emily. Isn't she divine?
I check Facebook. Spam, spam, Trump, vaguebook post from drama queen, baby pictures, deerhounds, wolfhounds, cats. The usual. And then I see the Facebook Memories post. 

I can never resist these. I ALWAYS click on See More Memories. I can't resist revisiting past joys, and mourning again over the sad things. It's mostly about books I've read, and medical sagas with sick animals. But this morning I came across something I posted on this day one year ago. I'm going to quote it here:

For all those who don't believe in the magic of a daily wordcount - I'm approaching the finish line with my new book. Still on track to finish next month, despite having taken a week out to work on something else. In fact, had I not done that, I might have finished it this month. Why is this interesting? Because I only started this book on 11 January.
Track your wordcount, people! It really works!

So far so good, right? Why wasn't I misty-eyed with pride and happiness as I looked back on this moment? I suspect those of you who've been writing for a while will know.

Because a year later, that first draft still remains unfinished. 

What went wrong, you ask? You may well ask. I had set myself a daily wordcount goal, and I KEPT to that goal. In 2016 I wrote 211,725 words. That should have been several full-length novels finished. But instead, despite achieving well on the task level, I was completely undisciplined on the project level. I frittered away my effort switching randomly between things. Let's see where the time went.

I wrote most of that novel, four long stories, seven short stories, two and a half novellas, parts of several other stories, and some material for the new edition of Grammar Without Tears. I also did revisions on my historical novel. That and a single novella was all I published last year. I kept dropping what I was working on to start something new, and generally behaved in a grasshopperish manner, with the result that I finished almost nothing. As far as my project goals went, I attempted twenty-five things and accomplished six of them.

This hopping from one thing to another is the death of achievement. I think my experience last year demonstrates this. If I'd carried on like this when I was in paid employment, I'd have been out of a job.

What I Did About It

I'd already been aware of my productivity defects before the beginning of this year, and as one of my CPD courses this summer was The No Excuse Zone*, I started the year with a more disciplined approach and what I hope is a realistic plan. I have six things I want to accomplish this year, as follows:

  1. New edition of Grammar Without Tears
  2. Companion volume to Grammar Without Tears
  3. Two long stories or perhaps novellas
  4. Two short stories.

The project plan calls for all of these things to be finished and ready for submission or publication, and the companion volume is the only one I'm aiming actually to publish this year. So far, most of it is drafted, so I think I can do it. Of course, this means I've had to leave on the back burner a whole host of things that are also drafted, and partly drafted, but I'll get to those next year. IF I finish all my goals, I'll be able to work on something else. This gives me a little incentive to keep going, now that all the fun part of the year's project is pretty well over.

I realise that I can't tout this solution as a proven method, but twenty years in I.T. tell me it's got as good a chance of success as anything I can think of. My gut feeling tells me I need to finish this novel, and that novel (I've got two at about 80% drafted), but twenty years of experience is screaming at me not to listen to it. Time will tell if I'm right or not.

* The No Excuse Zone is a terrific resource for project planning, at a very reasonable price - at the time of writing it is actually free, and you are asked to pay afterwards what you think it was worth. You can find it here: NO EXCUSE ZONE.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Subject Matter Experts - a present help in time of ignorance

I've spoken before about the value of personal experience in writing. In Write What You Know - What it Really Means (27 February, 2017) I talked about this, and how there is no substitute for it for writing grainy, realistic fiction.

Personal experience is the best way.

There are, however, situations where it's impossible to gain direct personal experience in any meaningful way. You cannot, for example, take ten or so years to study medicine, qualify as a doctor and undertake a surgical residency just to add texture to your operating-theatre scene. That is, of course you can, but it would be silly; the investment won't give you a sufficient return, especially if it is just for a one-off short story or novella.

As I said last month, this kind of situation is where you use your contacts. But I didn't really go into much detail about how to use them. How to find them in the first place, and how to make the best use of them when you do. That's what we're going to talk about today. If you do not have an InfoTech background, you may not be familiar with the term Subject Matter Expert. This is a person who is seconded, at least part-time, to a big project in order to provide specialist knowledge of a particular area of the business.

Finding your SME

The first thing is to locate one of these helpful individuals in the first place. There are two criteria that must be satisfied here: a SME must a) have a lot of knowledge in the subject field, and b) be willing to give you a bit of his time. Here are some of the starting points.

University Lecturers.

A lot of people not in the academic world don't realise how academics love to be consulted. If you need help with something historical, or scientific, for example, do try ringing up the appropriate faculty at a good university. I've found these people endlessly helpful. Many academics of the better sort see themselves as a kind of 'knowledge trust' for the wider community, are delighted when someone consults them and will go to enormous lengths to help you.

The Police

If you're a crime writer, a police contact is invaluable for matters of procedure. I've had mixed results with cold-calling approaches. Departments that have any kind of public education/community relations focus tend to be very approachable and helpful. Some departments, however, can be surprisingly paranoid and hostile. A lot will depend on the morale of your particular police force. Try Facebook first - the police who are responsible for maintaining Facebook pages are already oriented towards contact with the community. If your need is for a specialist area of police work, they may be able to give you a contact, too. 


Writing about medical things is full of pitfalls

Doctors can be rather difficult. I've only really had success with the ones in my personal circle of acquaintance. However, they're sufficient to my needs. Vets tend to be more helpful. Don't forget that everything is a resource. You may not have any vet contact connected with your writing, but your family vet probably knows you pretty well. Also, don't overlook the vast body of knowledge the nurses have. They are likely to have more time to chat on the phone, too.

Mediaeval stuff

Mediaevalists can be very helpful when one's writing fantasy

Don't forget the SCA. SCA members are intensely dedicated and are an absolute fountainhead of useful information. They can be found on Facebook too. This is not just useful for historical fiction, but also for a lot of fantasy, which is traditionally set in mediaeval-type worlds. They're a friendly lot and easy to approach.


Every state, or region, will have something called the Law Society, Law Institute etc. They're usually pretty approachable. Contact these organisations to be put in touch with someone practising the particular field of law in which you're interested. Don't overlook law students, either. Third-year law students know a fair bit of law, and they're often keen to do research on arcane points. They can often be found on old-fashioned bulletin boards. Your local MP may very well be a lawyer too; they often are, and he is going to be keen to suck up to you, especially if there is an election coming up.


Never pass up the opportunity to make a new acquaintance.

Every person is the centre of a vast network of individuals. Each of these individuals is the gateway to another vast network. Never underestimate this. You have access to far, far more specialised knowledge that you may realise. For example, a man I'm friendly with in the dog world is a psychiatric nurse. Our local grocer is Indian. He's also a Buddhist. One of the people who goes to my church is a retired police detective. My immediate neighbours in town include a retired haematologist, two retired missionaries, a physiotherapist and a management consultant. In the country, I've got publicans on one side and a nurse and a retired train driver on the other. And that's just my geographical vicinity, without even starting on Facebook, the dance studio, all my friends, etc. Keep expanding your personal network. Not just to use people, of course. Every new person you know enlarges your world. And make a note of things people tell you. For example, I can get my dance teacher to read over anything set in the dance world, but I also know that his father is a fluent Gaelic speaker. And that is just one facet of one person.


Maintaining the Relationship

Once you have found a good SME, you will want to give some attention to maintaining your relationship with him or her. This basically means not wearing out your welcome. There are two facets to this.


Don't waste your SME's time.

The time to consult your SME is only when you need to. This means that you have done what you could to find the information you need yourself. Ideally, you'll have at least drafted an answer to your question. Don't be pestering a busy person all day. 

When you do need to contact your SME, organise the things you want to know into a logical structure before you make the call. And speaking of 'making the call', try not to call - use email wherever you can. It's asynchronous, and you will not be interrupting a busy person, and you will be doing him the courtesy of leaving him to respond in his own time.

Appreciate your SME.

Do not ignore your SME as soon as he has given you what you wanted. That is the fastest way I know to wear out your welcome. ALWAYS THANK HIM NICELY. And don't just belt out a cursory 'thank you'. Say something personal and individual about the help he's given you. 

When your book is published, if you've had an SME who's contributed substantially, send him a copy of the paperback. With a nice inscription in the front thanking him for his help. And be sure to mention him in the acknowledgements. Again, don't just cursorily mention his name, but say a little bit about the help he was to you. Most lay people will get a huge kick out of this.

Always give your SME a copy of the finished book

The Nuts and Bolts.

As I've said, you don't want to be ringing up your SME and wasting his whole morning rambling on with your questions. So do by all means boil down what you need to know into a succinct email. 

The second point where your SME comes in is after you've finished your first draft. Once you have completed your story, novel, or perhaps just a part of it - for example, in one of my books there was just one chapter that dealt with my protagonist being arrested, but the rest of the book had nothing to do with police - a good use of your SME is to ask him to read over your material and comment about whether you have 'got anything wrong'. Do limit what you are asking your SME to read to only what is relevant to his field. Remember, a busy person is giving you his time. And once you've sent it to him, don't be like that little kid in the car going 'are we there yet'? If he doesn't get back to you as quickly as you had hoped, you need to suck it up. Do not follow up unless you haven't heard back from him for a couple of weeks.

The Feedback

At this point, you must be prepared to take it on the chin. Remember that the reason you are consulting this guy is that he knows all about intergalactic widgets or whatever, and you don't. Usually you'll get small corrections, but sometimes you have really got something fundamentally wrong. I recently took an enormous bollocking from my doctor and vet SMEs with a story I had written with a lot of medical content. Both the doctor and the vet schooled me righteously. The symptoms I had given the patient were completely inconsistent with the location of the tumour. It was rather disheartening, as a great deal of my story must now be rewritten. But think how infinitely worse it would be to publish something like that. Then consider the sheer magnitude of the benefit those SMEs are conferring on you.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Getting Creative With Language

You probably thought the title was a good thing, right? We're writers; it's our job to be creative with language. Well, there's creative, and then there's silly, and the line between them can be surprisingly fine. Today I'm going to talk about several aspects of creative language use that can bite you on the bum, as we say in Australia, a country where pretty well everything bites you on the bum, and it's usually fatal. Like so many chemical compounds, creativity with language can be therapeutic in small doses and violently toxic in large ones.

All our creatures are deadly. Even the cute ones.

Thing One - Far-fetched Synonyms.

A rose by any other name is pretentious.

I think it was Stephen King who decried the habit some writers have of writing with a thesaurus at their elbow. If you have to look up another word, he said, you ought to be using the one you first thought of. Or words to that effect. I think it was King who said this, in his valuable book On Writing, but my regular readers will know I'm too lazy to go and look it up. If it was someone else, and you know who it was, please feel free to correct me in the comments below. 

For what it's worth, I agree with King on this. Here's an example I just saw in a piece of writing, by a person whom I am not going to name.

"...she could feel his nocturnal growth press against the small of her back."

Now, I'm sure we all know what body part is designated by 'nocturnal growth', don't we? But, good heavens, why do this? Why? It conjures up images of some rapidly-expanding tumour, and is altogether vile. 

To be fair, of course, this person writes what he probably calls 'erotica', a genre that is famous for coining cutesy nicknames for body parts. Love tunnel. Nub. Chocolate Rosebud. Eeewww. This is one of the main reasons I can't stand reading this genre. If you're raunchy enough to write explicit sex scenes, surely you aren't such a shrinking violet that you're going to faint at the word 'penis', and that goes for your readers as well.

It's not just porn writers who are guilty of this kind of thing, though. We see a great deal of it in magazine articles, particularly in fashion magazines. The safest way is to avoid it entirely. If you mean 'dog', don't say 'canine quadruped', and if you mean 'beer' don't say 'amber fluid'. Etcetera.

Thing Two - Coining New Words.

Remember that scene in Twin Peaks, where the Man From Another World says, 'I want all of your garmanbozia'? It was wonderfully effective, BUT they still had to explain the word in the subtitles. In a book, you do not have subtitles, so if you are going to make up a word, you will have to make the meaning clear in the context. 

There are valid reasons for making up completely new words. Science Fiction and Fantasy novels spring to mind. If you are going to write about something that is not a thing in the real world, you will have to call it something, after all. When you do, though, you must accept the burden that goes along with it, that of making the meaning clear in the context, without doing something clumsy like footnotes, having characters ask patently artificial questions, etc. Tanith Lee does this rather well in her book, Don't Bite The Sun. She also provides a glossary of her words at the back, but this isn't really more than a convenience; the meanings of her words are clear enough. If your glossary is actually necessary, this should be enough to tell you to cut way back on your word invention. Readers of fiction do not want to be flicking back and forth to look things up. It's annoying enough in scholarly works.

Thing Three - Inappropriate Word Use.


Now I'm not talking about swearing or anything like that here. There are situations where a word can be used in a way that's prima facie inappropriate to its dictionary meaning, to add life and colour. Here's an example I often see: 

She bent down and swooped up the child.

Used just once, 'swooped' adds the feeling of that sudden, fluid motion as the woman picks up the child. However, be warned. If you use this expression constantly, not only will it lose its impact, but you will give your reader the impression that you just misspelled 'swept'. 

This is what I meant about medicine and poisons - a little of it goes a long, long way, and if you overdo it, it will bite you. Even if you don't make your reader think you've confused two words, after a while, things like this get very, very irritating.

Similar to this is having a love affair with a particular word, to the extent where it hurts you. The word 'smirk' springs to mind. Quite frequently, I see this word overused to death, and used as though it were a synonym of 'smile'. It isn't. Be careful with this, and similar, words.

Thing Four - Verbing Nouns or Adjectives.


'Verbing' is quite a thing nowadays. We are constantly bombarded with verbed nouns in the business world, where pony-tailed consultants babble endlessly about 'conferencing' and the like, and 'verbing' has come to be very much looked down upon.

Back when I first encountered the concept, though, it was rich and strange. I still remember it; it was in one of Hugh Cook's novels. He spoke of a fighter 'nimbling' across the floor. Later in the same book, he mentioned someone 'greeding' into a plate of food. I found this technique absolutely captivating, and on occasion I've used it myself. It injects a jolt of colour, and provided it's used sparingly, I'm a big fan of it. However, the key word here is 'sparingly'. If you overdo this one, you are going to look like one of those pony-tailed briefcase warriors, and nobody wants that.

So, there you are. Four powerful techniques, and four opportunities to look like a massive prat if you don't use them wisely.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Getting Good Reviews

I knew that would get your attention! Getting reviews, good ones, and plenty of them, is a constant concern to those writers who've not yet become fully established.

Now I am not suggesting by any means that you cheat, or 'game the system'. But without the slightest resort to low practices, there are a number of things you can do to improve your likelihood of getting a good review. Obviously, the first and most important thing is to write excellent books. But setting that aside, today we're going to look at the actual review process, from the point of view of one who reviews a lot of books, and used to review even more.

Getting Your Book Reviewed At All

The first hurdle you face is in getting people to accept your book for review. If it's your first book, you'll need to spend a bit of time and thought on this. If you've published a few, there will be 'go to' reviewers who've given you nice reviews in the past, but with your first book, you're starting from scratch.

One way, of course, is to have a free giveaway. With luck, this will net you a fair few downloads. The hit rate on actual reviews posted, though, is likely to be small, and the quality of review not terribly impressive. Of course it's wonderful if dozens or hundreds of readers post things like 'OMG I loved it', but you will probably want at least a few that you can quote on your back cover and in your promotional materials, and the best ones are going to come from people in the business, whether they're specialist reviewers or other writers. Therefore, at some point, you will be wanting to bite the bullet and ask people to review your book.

Before you approach a stranger with a review copy in your hot little hand, it's wise to pre-select. What do you know about this person's reading tastes? Does he, in fact, even like the kind of thing you've written? It's no use, for example, sending your hot-and-heavy cross-species shifter romance to someone who is mainly interested in ancient Roman history. Goodreads is your friend here. You can spy on people's reading behaviour and see what kind of thing they like. This is important, because if the reviewer doesn't enjoy reading your book, there is no way he's going to give you the kind of review you want.

The book should be something your reviewer is likely to enjoy.

The A List

As a writer, of course, I've got lots of writer friends, and a fair few of them are on my A List. When I say A List, I mean my list of writers from whom I will always accept a review copy, and for whom I will be willing to shuffle things around so that I can fast-track their review and meet their release date, if it's an advance copy. 

These people on my A List are people who a) have written excellent books in the past and b) have not caused me any problems by being overly demanding, pestering me every day, etc. Writers such as Lynne Cantwell, Rafeeq McGiveron, Carla Sarett, Patti Roberts, Joseph Picard, Andy Peloquin, Leonardo Acebo, Ray Anselmo, to name but a few. I know I will like their new book, I know they'll behave themselves in a professional way, and if it's an advance copy I know they'll have got the book to me a reasonable time ahead of the release date.

But wait, there is another. Another list. It's nameless, but this list is of writers whose work I will never, under any circumstances, review. There is no appeal from this; once you get on my Nameless List, that's it for you, as far as I am concerned. 

Now I'm not suggesting that I'm such a leader in the literary world that being on my Nameless List is the kiss of death to your career. But consider this: the behaviour that will get you on my list will almost certainly get you on other people's lists as well. 

How to Get on the Nameless List

Send your reviewer a sloppily put-together pdf. When reviewer requests a properly-formatted ebook, respond with a blast of whining, excuses and perhaps anger. Pretend you don't know how to make a mobi. Alternatively, demand that the reviewer pay for a copy.

A half-baked pdf is no substitute for a properly formatted ebook.

Once reviewer has accepted your book, message or email him at least once a day asking whether he has started it, what he thinks about some character who doesn't appear until halfway through the book, and requesting a list of proofing errors.

Don't be all demandy.
When the review appears, respond by a) requesting changes to it, b) arguing that any criticism is invalid because you have autism/ lost a leg in Vietnam/ are a single parent/ other feature of your personal life.

A missing leg is no excuse for bad writing.

Take offence at something before the review is even up, and retaliate by going to Goodreads and giving one-star ratings to all of the reviewer's published work. Yes, this actually happened to me! Thank you, Maggie Young!

Any retaliatory response to a review brands you as an amateur.

How to Stay Off the Nameless List

It's easy enough to avoid the last two of these behaviours, if you are actually a grown-up. To keep yourself from falling foul of the first two, consider the following:

1. Reviewing your book is not the reviewer's actual job. He is taking time away from either his own work or his leisure time to do you this favour.

2. In order to review a book properly, it is necessary to read the whole thing, with fairly close attention, which usually means a slightly slower reading speed than average. Even a quite short book is therefore going to cost your reviewer several hours of his time, before he even starts to write the review. This is a non-trivial request.

3. It has always been the custom, since the infancy of the publishing industry, that people who are asked to review a book are not expected to contribute their money as well as their time. This means that you provide a readable copy of the book, that if it is a physical copy you also take care of getting it to its destination, and that by no means do you ever ask the reviewer to pay for anything. Nowadays we have e-books, so it is easy to provide a review copy at little or no cost, and there is absolutely no justification for not doing so. This is why I do not accept for review anything from Nightchaser Ink.

Don't ask your reviewer for money. Just don't.
4. If the reviewer was willing to accept your book for review, he was also willing to do the same for other writers. Most reviewers have a stack of things waiting for review. This is where the value of the A List comes in. My A List writers can jump the queue. I'm sure other reviewers also have their versions of the A List.

A Final Word

I shouldn't have to mention this, but never, under any circumstances, offer your reviewer any compensation whatever for reviewing your book. Your contribution begins and ends with the review copy. Do not offer money or anything else. It is completely unacceptable to do so, and is likely to give grave offence.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Gender issues in writing female characters

I have my friend Tamara to thank for today's topic. I was kicking around some thoughts with a few friends, looking for something I could bite into for a blog post, and Tamara said, what about the difficulty of writing strong female characters so that they don't seem to have been written by a man.

My kneejerk reaction was to dismiss this as the usual cant of social justice warriors. But then I know Tamara, and if she says something like this there is going to be some meat in it, so I enquired further. Let me tell you a little about Tamara, by the way, for she, or at least our friendship, is a great example of the value of my advice to be constantly engaging in the community.

I met Tamara on the Victoria Police Facebook page. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, this is the official page of the Victoria Police. The page is administered by the police, but its average inhabitant could be a poster child for the KKK. Redneck just is not the word. I was hanging about there because I was working on a police procedural novel, and hoping to pick up the odd bit of texture that I could use in my book. So there was Tamara, and there was I, and of course I got into an argument because it's almost impossible not to on that page. We found ourselves on opposite sides of whatever the question was, and infected by the spirit of the page we soon quarrelled, and insulted each other a fair bit. I forget whether the cops told us to take it outside or what, but we continued our frank exchange of views in private messages, and pretty soon we became friends. As you do. Since that time, I've found Tamara and I have a lot in common, but more than that, she has a sharp mind and a habit of cutting past the fluff, and often has very penetrating insights about things, and I value her friendship dearly. Do you see what I mean about engaging in the community? You have to put yourself out there, and then you meet all kinds of people who enlarge your world, and to a writer, that's pure gold. Tamara is going to be one of my beta readers for that police procedural novel, when I eventually finish it. She has some unique expertise that will be wonderfully valuable.

A police procedural novel needs gritty detail
So anyway, when Tamara said this about the female characters, instead of dismissing it as mere cant, I enquired further, and sure enough there is a very interesting question there. Female protagonists, Tamara says, when they are written by a man, very often focus on the woman's appearance and her attractiveness to others, even when this is completely irrelevant to the plot. Tamara likes action and adventure novels, so this irrelevance to the plot is a common thing. If you're a six foot marine invading a terrorist stronghold, no one is going to care about your shining waves of golden hair or your frilly undies, right? Right.

If you're writing about this kind of action, leave out the frilly undies.
So I planned to look into the writing of a number of authors and try to determine whether I agree with this or not.

The first step was to make a list of female protagonists created by male authors. This could be endless, but in the interests of time and space, because I really don't want to spend the rest of my life on this, I have limited it. 

I didn't just choose authors at random, because there are some books where attractiveness really is a relevant issue. I chose characters for whom their appearance and attractiveness to others would have had no material effect on how their stories played out.

I examined the work of the following male writers; the protagonists' names are given in parentheses. I've chosen these ones from memory based on how much I like the character, how much I like the author's work generally, and the force of the character within the books: how essential that particular character is for the books to work as written; this is what, to me, a 'strong character' means.

Peter O'Donnell (Modesty Blaze)
Alexander McCall Smith (Precious Ramotswe)
Walter Scott (Jeannie Deans)
Simon Brett (Melita Pargeter)
Isaac Asimov (Susan Calvin)
Terry Pratchett (Granny Weatherwax) 

Granny Weatherwax doesn't look like this.
Based on these guys, I have to acquit the male gender of the accusation, at least absent a lengthy enquiry that would take years. I don't dismiss Tamara's statement, though. She is talking about books currently being published, rather than these favourites of mine, all of which have attained classic or near-classic status. Tamara likes the action-adventure genre, where you would normally expect that the protagonist's beauty and/or sexual attractiveness would be of peripheral interest, at best. I myself don't read a lot in that genre, so I'm quite prepared to take her word for it. And that brings us to the thought of the day- what does this have to say to you, a writer?

Let's get one thing straight right away. Female characters are not 'difficult' to write. Everyone knows lots of women, just as everyone knows lots of men. The crucial thing with writing any character is believability. Could this person really exist? Your own life experience should be your guide here.

Once you've sorted that, the rest should follow naturally. All you have to do is watch out for the extraneous matter that creeps in. Resist the temptation to describe everything. Yes, I know it's an easy way to get your wordcount up, but when you're writing a real book, you don't want to get your wordcount up. If anything, you want to keep it down. Your reader doesn't want to know the brand name of every single item your character is wearing, or the exact shade of her eyes, or any of that shit. Your reader can fill in the blanks himself, and he will have a far more satisfying reading experience if you allow him to do so.

Unless it's directly relevant, don't describe your character going to the lavatory.
Similarly, you don't want to waste space on crap that is completely irrelevant to your plot. This goes for your character's attractiveness, just as it goes for her personal hygiene. Consider this - how many times have you read in a novel a description of someone going to the lavatory? Almost never, I'll bet. And yet most people take care of these functions several times a day. It just isn't interesting to read about, and neither is taking a shower, eating food or having sex, unless you're writing porn, in which case the quality of your book is probably not at the top of your list of concerns. Things like this should go in only insofar as they have some relevance to your story, or serve in developing your character.

Meals, too, are best left to the reader, unless something has particular relevance.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Respecting the Natural Order - Time Sequencing in Sentences

We're all so entitled these days, so focussed on ourselves. The world of my youth was more other-directed, and I find myself wondering whether the very poor quality of some of the fiction I have been reading lately can be ascribed, at least in part, to this. It seems to me that when a writer becomes so fixed upon his inner vision that he fails to consider the reader, the work is almost certainly going to suffer.

Remember those days when writers used to preface their work in the second person, addressing their remarks to 'Gentle Reader'? These chaps had the right idea. Your reader should be always in your mind, because that nebulous composite person is the one who writes your paycheck. Just as if you were slaving away offering people fries with their Yukburgers, if you fail to please The Boss, your employment is likely to be either curtailed, or made less profitable in some other way.

One way in which you can please your reader, of course, is by constructing a good plot. That's bound to help. I've just been reading a tremendously good book about this - Writing To Sell, by Scott Meredith. It's been around a long time, but it's just as on point today as it was when it was first published, in the 1970s, I think. I thoroughly recommend it.

I'm not going to address plot construction today. That's been very ably done by Mr Meredith, and I've given you the reference. Today I am going to talk, as I so often do, about sentence construction.

It's not just the big things, you see, that can affect how your reader sees your book. Tiny issues, when allowed to flourish unchecked, can annoy a reader just as much as a gaping plot hole or lack of dramatic tension, even when they are below the level of his conscious awareness.

This is really important, so let me say it again. Your reader doesn't have to be aware of a problem to be affected by it. Just as invisible radiation can nibble away at your health, so subtle infelicities in your writing can chip away at your reader's commitment to your book.

It isn't all about your reader's emotional reaction, either. You must also consider his energy levels. Think about this - when you are writing, you do not know what state Gentle Reader is going to be in when he is reading your book. Perhaps he is enjoying a coveted half-hour of peace in bed, before turning out the light after a long, gruelling day rescuing flood victims. Exhausted in body and mind, he turns to your book for a little light entertainment to lift his mind away from the scenes of destruction he has been facing.

Get this? He is tired. And if you do not maintain his interest above the level where his tiredness becomes more important to him than turning the page of your book, he is going to close the book, turn out the light and go to sleep. Your job is to prevent him from doing that, for two reasons.

Any time your reader puts down the book, he may not pick it up again. You do not know what are the calls on his time, the other books in his To Be Read pile, his genre preferences. You don't know any of that. Lots of people start books and don't finish them. You cannot, ever, rely on a reader's resuming reading after he has closed the book.

There is one thing you can rely on, though, and that is that if you can keep him turning the pages, he is not going to put it down, absent some major supervening event that calls him away from it. And no reader ever decided not to bother finishing a book while he was avidly turning the pages. No. Reader. Ever. 

Supervening events cannot be predicted

If he doesn't finish this book, he is unlikely to seek out more of your work. This is a truism. When people have reference to a writer's name in their book-buying decisions, it is nearly always either because they have enjoyed that writer's work in the past, or because a friend has recommended him. So by letting your reader get away from this book, you are potentially costing yourself other sales. Similarly, no one, or almost no one, ever recommends a book to anyone if he has not bothered to finish it himself. He may, of course, recommend it while he is in the process of reading it, but to do so he must have stopped reading, at least for the moment, and that is what you want to avoid.

So, you don't want to bore your reader or annoy him, but also you don't want to tire him more than necessary. You want him to have enough energy, if possible, to finish your book in one sitting, because that is the supreme goal of every writer. The very act of finishing a book in a single sitting immediately produces in your reader a frame of mind where you, the writer, are haloed in golden light. "I could not put it down," he will say to his friends. "It made me late to the board meeting." "I stayed up all night to finish it." Ah, what music to one's ears these, and similar, statements are. There is no higher compliment a reader can pay your book than to stay up all night to finish it.

One way in which you can help your reader to preserve his energy is by not forcing him to fritter it away. To do this, you should be aiming to make your writing as easy to read as possible. Now I'm not suggesting you limit your vocabulary to an eighth grade level, or confine yourself to only the simplest and shortest of sentences, or in any way 'write down'; when I say 'possible', I say it within the context of whatever the work is. But you don't want to waste. Do not, for example, write with a thesaurus at your elbow and constantly search for unusual words to replace those in common, everyday use. If you mean 'dog', say 'dog'. Not 'canine quadruped'. Don't say 'alternative destination' when you mean 'somewhere else'.

There's more to consider here than word choice, though. If you don't take care with your sentence structures, your reader may be bleeding energy just to follow your writing. Energy that he could have used for more page-turning. Unnecessarily long and complex structures, for example, require more energy of the reader than do more simple ones. In particular, avoid long, run-on sentences. A good rule of thumb for light fiction is that if a sentence goes for more than, say, three to five lines on a paperback page, it may be a candidate for reduction.

So, you're not being silly about word choices, and you're not writing Kant-esque sentences. That's good. But there is one more thing you might wish to consider, and that is sequencing. 

When I say sequencing, I am referring to the sequencing in time of events in your narrative. There is a convention that goes back to the dawn of time, dictating that the natural order of events in a story is the order in which they happen. This probably goes right back to our ancestors squatting around the fire in a cave, chewing on mammoth bones. "I tracked him to the waterhole," says your great-great-great-great-great etcetera grandfather. "I threw my spear. He fell down dead. It took three people to drag the beast back to the cave." Compare this straightforward recitation to the kind of account that always makes me insane with irritation; I am thinking of certain people who, apparently unable to organise their minds at all, insist on recounting the latest movie they have seen. "He falls in love with her, oh but before that his dog dies, and then they live happily ever after, oh and there's a mad scientist, he blows up the galaxy, no that was after the dog, no wait, there's a canary too..." You know the kind of thing. It's maddening.

Of course you aren't going to do this kind of thing in your narrative. But sequencing glitches can creep in unnoticed. One of the chief offenders in this regard is the misuse of the time sequence words, 'before' and 'after'.'


The simplest construction using 'before' is of the form 'X before Y'.

Rover broke the rat's neck before eating it.

Now, there's nothing grammatically amiss with that sentence, but the use of 'before' is redundant, because of the basic default we discussed supra. You could just as easily leave it out:

Rover broke the rat's neck and ate it.

Not only have you shortened the sentence doing it this way, but you've replaced a gerund with a declarative verb. Your reader will use less energy to understand this sentence; the difference may be infinitesimally small, but it is there, and tiny amounts of energy wasted can accrue to large amounts very easily, especially as things like this never appear in isolation in a person's work, but are the result of habits.

There is a worse thing you can do with 'before', though, and that is to disorder your natural sequence for no good reason. Consider:

Before he ate the rat, Rover broke its neck.

Here we have two story elements: Rover breaks the rat's neck, and Rover eats the rat. The sequence is obvious and necessary, for Rover can hardly break the rat's neck after eating it. 

If you examine in detail the processes of a reader's mind with this sentence, you will find that you must hold in your short-term memory the fact of Rover eating the rat, having it, as it were, ready to go, while you read and process the breaking of the rat's neck. Doing this takes energy, energy that would be better spent reading the next sentence or turning the page. It's a very small amount of energy, but then it's a very short, simple sentence. Typically, when I see this done, the sentence is longer and more complex, for a corresponding increase in energy wastage.

There may, of course, be occasions where you really will have a valid reason for using this construction, but it's like antibiotics - best left alone until it will actually do some good.


Using 'after' instead of 'before', the two structures are reversed. The relatively innocuous redundancy has the same structure as the second sentence above:

After breaking its neck, Rover ate the rat.

The really toxic one, in which the natural sequence is reversed, is the structure of the first sentence above:

Rover ate the rat after breaking its neck.


You may be tempted to say that the first sentence in each pair, having merely redundancy instead of actual screwing up of the natural sequence of events, is the lesser of two evils. I will remind you, however, that whenever you are choosing between two evils, they are both evil.


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Basic Mechanics of Dialogue

Dialogue. What would fiction be without it? Well, we can make a fair guess at that by looking at the Foundation trilogy. And yes, I know it was very much admired, but still, not as fun a read as it might have been. I think it mainly appealed to those grim types who take their fiction ever so seriously. Which, as we both know, is not the case here.

I'm a big fan of lots of dialogue myself. I've been known to treat lengthy action sequences in a film as if they were commercial breaks. The way I see it is, 'if no one ain't talking, ain't nothing happening.' While this may be a little extreme, novels are, after all, about people, and the main way in which people interact is by talking to each other, so unless you're doing some kind of very unusual novel where no one needs to talk, you will need to be comfortable with writing lots of dialogue. A lot of novice writers have trouble with this, so today I'm going to look at the basic mechanics of how it works.

Now I'm not going to talk about content today. Content in dialogue is a vast and perilous estate, having to do with the use of inflexions and dialects, character exposition, and a whole raft of issues. I may or may not address it another time. Today we are concerned with the nuts and bolts.

1. Indicating Speech

The first thing to consider is that you must show your reader that someone is speaking. In written English, we use quote marks to do this. Quote marks are the text equivalent of the speech bubble in a comic.

I'll be using the convention of double quotes for speech and single quotes for quoted material. It can also be done the other way around, but the double quotes are more commonly used.

To indicate that someone is talking, you wrap the speech in quotes, so: "I hope that fireman asks her out soon. This is getting old."

See how, when we repeat the speech from the illustration above, the quotes take the place of the bubble? That's all that needs to be said about quotes.

2. Termination.

Pattern 1 - Speech is coextensive with sentence.

Ordinarily, a sentence is terminated with terminating punctuation - a period, question mark or exclamation point. This is, of course, also true of sentences in dialogue. An added complication however, arises when a sentence of dialogue is not coextensive with a sentence of your narrative.

Consider the following:

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon."

In the above example, we may note that the spoken sentence is coextensive with the written sentence. It fills up the whole sentence; there is no 'he said', and the single sentence of speech is in every respect identical with a sentence of narrative except for the fact it is enclosed in quotes. This is the simplest form of dialogue.

Pattern 2 - Speech is contained within a greater sentence.

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon," said Fluffy.

Here, there is more to the sentence than just the speech; there is a speech verb, too, and a subject. This is a well-formed sentence; it has a subject, verb and object. The object of 'said' is the entire speech. It is what Fluffy said.

Notice that, unlike the first example, Fluffy's speech is here terminated with a comma, not a period. This is because the end of the speech is not the end of the sentence, as it was in the first example. When a speech ends before the end of the sentence, the period is replaced with a comma. Note that this will not be the case if some other termination is used - a question mark or exclamation mark. In those cases, the punctuation remains unchanged:

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon!" said Fluffy.

Pattern 3 - a sentence contains more than one sentence of dialogue.

"I hope that fireman asks her out soon. This is getting old," said Fluffy.

Here, you can see that only the last period in the speech is replaced with a comma. Any other terminating marks within the speech retain their normal values.

3. Other punctuation.

There is more to punctuation, of course, than terminations, and in dialogue this is even more the case than in narrative, for punctuation, as I've mentioned before, adds inflexions and intonations to the spoken word. You will probably find you're using more punctuation, ceteris paribus, in dialogue than in narrative. Consider the following examples, where ellipses are used to indicate less than total concentration on the part of the speaker:

Fluffy is falling off his branch and struggling to hold on as he speaks:

"I hope... that fireman... oh, help! ...asks her out soon," said Fluffy, scrabbling about for a better view, and almost losing his grip on the branch.

Fluffy is relaxing in front of the fire and drifting off to sleep:

"I hope... that fireman... asks her out soon..." A gentle snore indicated that Fluffy had given up the fight to stay awake.

4. Fragments.

No discussion of dialogue would be complete without mentioning that, in dialogue, it is not necessary that sentences be well-formed. As the fundamental requirement of narrative is that it be correct English, so the fundamental requirement of dialogue is that it be, or at least sound, 'natural', and therefore, in well-written dislogue, the well-formed sentence is conspicuous, if not by its absence, at least by its rather spotty attendance. Just as humans do not speak in a controlled sequence of perfectly formed English sentences, neither should your characters, unless there is a good context- or character-driven reason for it. Human speech is full of sentence fragments, and becomes fuller the more casual the situation.